Them Crooked Gobblers, Part One: There’s Always a First Time

Although Get Out and Go Hunting has taken a brief hiatus (forced by the fact that I have a cripplingly busy winter schedule with my real job; this blogging doesn’t exactly pay the bills), fear not for I have returned just in time for Christmas.
Consider this my gift to you.  A last-minute, thoughtless gift that you probably won’t really use and one you will have a hard time re-gifting to others.  I’m sorry in advance.
My pining for turkey hunting has come early this year, and I cannot precisely pinpoint the source.  Usually I don’t get all antsy to be sitting under a tree on a verdant spring morning until sometime in the frozen depths of February, but this year, I’ve just been sitting around in the evenings, and the mornings, and the lunch hours just reminiscing about gobblers.  So to slake my anxiety I’m going to recall stories about my five favourite gobblers.
Today, I will share the tall tale of the first gobbler I ever shot solo.
I came late to turkey hunting.  Ontario had been offering a spring gobbler season in one form or another for almost twenty years before I started in 2007.  My Dad had been after them for many years by that time and had a nice few gobbler tailfans already nailed to the drywall in the garage, with the year and date of their harvest scrawled beneath each one.  In that first rookie turkey season for me I made a whack of mistakes, spooked a bunch of birds, called too much, and nearly got skunked before Dad and I had a frantic tandem kill on a public land turkey (the tale of which will serialized here for posterity at a later date).  Still, even though I had come into turkey hunting later in my life, I was hooked completely with the experience.  Early spring mornings lured me in, but thundering gobbles and intense close-range longbeard action cemented the addiction.
In 2008 I was focused, and I swore that I wasn’t going to find a way to cock up shooting a longbeard that year, but by the second last weekend of the season I had so far failed even in that respect.  I had bumped two gobblers, shot over the head of a third at 35 steps, and had one sneak in silently behind me and gobble in my ear at just ten paces.  I was beginning to think that like my deer hunting career, my enthusiasm and early promise were going to be false indicators of success as a turkey hunter.
The second last weekend of the 2008 season was in reality the last weekend for me, with my wife’s sister getting married the following Saturday, and with my work schedule not allowing any other days off to ramble after a strutter.  It was crunch time.
My Dad, my brother, and I made our way to a local landowners bush lot early that Saturday morning, and in the dawn I worked some light yelping on a mouth diaphragm.  Not getting much response, I reached for my box call and sawed away a slightly more aggressive string of raspy yelps, with a bit of cutting thrown in.
I laid the calls down and slumped at the base of a pile of old, balled up page wire fence and discarded tree limbs.  I was set up inside a field edge facing north, and the sun rose slowly over my right shoulder; a treeline separated the field I was sitting on from another un-huntable field further north, but aside from the distant braying of Canada geese and the morning serenades of the sparrows and finches, the woods and fields were quiet.  I was still of the neophyte opinion that every yelp I made should get a response and to hear my calls dissipate into the air without a lusty gargle from a fired up tom turkey was disheartening.  Some time passed, twenty or thirty minutes perhaps, and then I heard a faint gobble from beyond the northern tree barrier, or at least I thought I heard one.  Moments later I heard two gobbles from the same spot, only these were closing the distance to me.  I don’t remember with precision what time it was that this happened, and I can’t even really remember the exact spot these calls originated from, but I do remember very deliberately reaching down and picking up my box call to yelp back, and before I even finished the string of notes, I was rebuked with what I was swore were three hefty shouts from beyond the treeline in front of me.  But that couldn’t be, we hadn’t seen three gobblers together on this property, or any adjacent ones, all year.
Still it sounded like ‘they’ were coming.
I laid down the box call and positioned myself with two hands on my Remington 870; it was not mounted to my shoulder but I was ready in case it had to be.  One turkey popped out of the trees at a fast walk about two hundred yards away. I was elated to have had some interest in my calling.  Then another one hopped out of the woods behind it and flapped its wings before falling in line behind the first.  I was even more excited…I mean, TWO GOBBLERS!  I had called up two gobblers!  When a third came out of the woods in full strut, I think I whispered a silent thank you to the turkey hunting gods.  As the trio of longbeards began making their way arduously across the field towards me, I very (very!) slowly began inching the gun to my shoulder.  I had a monopod attached to the barrel, and it was already in the down position so I had a limit to how far I could swing from left to right, but the birds were making good headway in my direction so I was not worried.
They closed to within 100 yards or so, all the while alternating between gobbling and strutting and spinning, before hanging out at that distance for about ten minutes.  They then began marching a line parallel to my position until they were right in front of me, but still at least fifty yards from being in range.  By then I was getting worried.  If they slid any more to my right, I’d have to move to put a bead on them, and with my monopod rooted to the spot that was a task that would be difficult to execute without spooking them into the next township.  I was distinctly aware of a few trickles of sweat inspired more by the circumstances than the pleasingly warm May morning as they rolled down my cheek, and my one foot was beginning to go tingly from being tucked under my other leg for some time.  My arms and shoulders were just glorious though, I had that damned monopod to thank for their freshness.
I made a light yelp and cluck on my mouth call and all three birds hammered back simultaneously, making any adrenaline response I had been having kick into overdrive.  I was filled with a sickly sweet anticipation that I have come to know very well since; it is the excitement of anticipation mixed with the absolute dread of buggering everything up.  It was intoxicating, and for a moment I was afraid to blink or exhale, lest those wary birds make me for the predator I was and have them make tracks elsewhere.
Then, glory of glories, one of the birds started to break the line and walk my way, this made another bird start over as well.  The third compatriot, not wanting to be left out, tried to run ahead of the other two and in short order I had three longbeards bouncing their way towards me at a dead run, gobbling the whole time. 
I slid the safety off silently.
All three broke into a strut in a phalanx at roughly thirty yards and the monopod held my bead in a space between two of them.  I was beginning to rue attaching that contraption to my gun. The gobbler that to my eye was the largest jumped and swung a wing at one of the others and both the subordinate birds broke strut.  It was fascinating to see the pecking order so instantly displayed, and while the one bird stayed in strut safely to my right in a spot where my monopod wouldn’t allow me to get to him, the other two birds began clucking and purring inquisitively.  I had only called two or three times since they had broken into the field, but they had marched and trotted right to the exact spot where their ears told them a hen should be waiting.
Since I had no decoy, the birds saw no hen, and I could tell that the two subordinate gobblers were becoming a little agitated by this, since the tone of their purring and clucking was becoming more, shall I say, urgent.  The big fella just strutted and spun in one spot the whole time.  As the two other birds putted around I noticed that one of them was on a path to walk directly in front of my gun barrel, while the other began picking at some new grass on the field edge.  I figured quickly that the spot the one bird would pass would be well in range and just as he approached that spot were the vectors were to converge I bore down on the bead.  That slightest movement made him lift his head to full periscope and he looked back over his shoulder towards the strutter.
It was the last thing he ever saw.
At the bark of the gun, the strutter leapt into flight and flew over my head into the bush at a height of no more than ten yards.  Had he been a Canada goose, I could have dumped him easily.  But he wasn’t a goose and the law says we can only shoot one turkey per day in Ontario so I listened to his wingtips tickle the trees as he powered out of earshot.  The other gobbler alarm putted and gobbled off through the low brush to my right, and I watched his shiny black back merge into the woods and fade off into the sun-dappled understory behind me.
A still, black form was laying in the grass at the field edge, with the white bars of one wing held up stiffly like a signal flag.  I slid the safety back on, stood and slowly paced off the distance to the lifeless bird.  At twenty five steps I put my bootheel on his neck and grabbed his legs below the spur.  He lamely flogged my shin with his wing for a moment, but he was soon still again.  It was all just too much for me, and standing there with shotgun in one hand and gobbler in the other I let out a war whoop that came from some previously untapped part of my brain.
I was a turkey hunter right then.  Before I had been in practice, an apprentice at the feet of mentors and magazines and often contradictory advice and opinion, but at that moment I’d tasted solo success and no matter what the future held I knew I had that one moment forever.  I’ve been hunting after and writing about gobblers for six seasons since then and I’ve shot other birds since, but I still haven’t found the words that adequately define that moment of ‘the first time’.
I probably won’t ever have another hunt like that, and in some ways I hope that’s the case.  That ‘first time’ was just too picture perfect to sully it with duplication.
As a footnote, that blasted monopod has not been re-attached to my gun since.

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